Greetings from New York City, and welcome to the first article in a series called, Opera Corner. Here you will find information on countertenors and their place in the opera world. I begin with a personal exploration of Regional Opera Apprenticeship programs in America.
It was only after both college and graduate school that I made the transition to singing as a countertenor. After six long years of struggling to succeed as a tenor and baritone, I was filled with excitement and a renewed passion for singing. However, I was met with interesting, yet perplexing questions about what to do next. I was unsure what my future path would be, and I found myself needing to learn a new vocal technique on the job.
The Path Well-Taken
My first thought was to audition for Young Artist Programs (YAPs), where opera companies provide young singers with the hands-on-training they need to be successful in the opera world. This seemed like the natural path, as it was what I saw so many (non-countertenor) colleagues go on to do. It seemed like the fast track to a career in opera. However, countertenors in the US do not have equal access to the opera apprentice system available to standard voice types. This is for reasons as varied as appropriateness of repertory, the need to cast individual singers in multiple roles over a season, and public acceptance of the voice type.
Who Serves Whom?
While YAPs exist to serve aspiring singers, those singers must also serve the needs of the program. A good deal of a young artist’s time is spent doing educational outreach, where they go out to schools and teach young children about opera and voice types/character types through the performance of mini-operas. Sadly many of these mini-operas do not employ countertenors, as the countertenor was seen as a fringe voice type when much of this repertory was composed. (Side note for all you American composers out there: We lack a repertory of educational outreach operas in English – or perhaps Spanish – that employ countertenors. This would be an interesting niche for young composers.)
Another purpose of a YAP is to help the company cast both smaller comprimario roles and covers for main stage roles. As such, young artists need to be castable in a variety of roles throughout the season. While a countertenor might be usable in one or two of the operas programmed, it would be tough to find something appropriate in everything. Although there has been increased interest in both baroque opera and new works featuring the countertenor voice (Flight by Dove and Akhnaten by Glass come to mind), this is not the bread-and-butter of most companies. American companies tend to program from the late nineteenth century repertory, a period that saw the countertenor voice type all but disappear from the opera stage.
Lean, Mean, yet Baroque-n
Thankfully, many companies are expanding beyond the steady diet of Puccini and Verdi that has been served throughout much of the twentieth century. Baroque operas, with their smaller casts and orchestras, are seen as a financially viable alternative in the current financial climate. One of my first regional contracts, at the peak of the financial crisis, was Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice with Opera Memphis (not a city one would readily associate with producing Gluck). Many regional companies, like Opera Memphis, and Florentine Opera (who recently did a double bill of Purcell and Blow) are becoming more progressive programmers for both artistic and financial reasons. Stay informed of what companies are planning in future seasons through audition sites (like Yap Tracker and Musical America) and opera publications; look for roles that may not be traditional, but may suit your voice and acting abilities.
As a general rule, however, unless a company is actually doing an opera that uses a countertenor (as a main stage singer or cover), there are fewer opportunities within American YAPs. It is more advantageous to seek out main stage work where appropriate, or limit YAP applications to companies that either have a history of using countertenors, or have indicated a need in the future. Share your experiences in the comments below. Where have you applied and how were you received?